The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal
Published by Pamela Dorman Books
Publication date: July 23, 2019
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Historical
I absolutely loved J. Ryan Stradal’s debut novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest so was nervous about his second novel. Sophomore efforts can be notoriously underwhelming. Happily, this was not the case with The Lager Queen of Minnesota. The story is about two sisters, Edith and Helen, and the wildly different paths their lives take when Helen reneges on a promise to split the proceeds when their family home sells. Beginning in the 1970s Stradal traverses their lives until present day in a bittersweet novel about struggle, family, and what’s really important. Oh, and as you can tell from the title…beer.
When The Lager Queen begins we meet Helen in her job as a cook at a nursing home in a small town in Minnesota. She decides the pies served at the home aren’t good enough and starts making her own. Soon enough, people are making reservations on pie night. It’s a good life, if not easy, with her husband driving a truck and her grown children out of their rented house. Then tragedy strikes not once, but twice, and her life is upended. She’s in her 70s, working two part-time jobs, with no car, and her teenage granddaughter, Diana, living with her. Diana, who steals high-end power tools to be fenced to help pay the bills. Their main meal of the day is the cold leftover Arby’s sandwiches Edith brings home from work.
On the other hand, Helen’s life has been on an upward trajectory since she tasted her first beer and fell in love with it when she was 15. She brewed her first batch in college, graduated with a chemistry degree and married the heir to what was once Minnesota’s biggest brewery, Blotz. They pursue their dream of revitalizing the brand, but it takes money and the only money around is their family farm. Their father has always said it would be split 50-50, but Helen convinces him that she deserves the money more.
Helen planned to call Edith and tell her. It wouldn’t be easy for Edith to hear that the farm would be sold and she’d see none of the money from the sale, but it wouldn’t be easy for Helen to tell her, either. Helen could certainly pay her back later, the minute she could afford to.
She also decides it would be easier to explain to Edith in a letter. When she doesn’t hear back from her, she decides she’ll to it leave it and let Edith reach out when she’s ready. In short, Helen is one cold master of rationalization. She goes on to be wildly successful and wealthy and never pays Edith back.
Once again, even though I’ve never lived in the Midwest, Stradal perfectly captures the tone and cadence of life there. Edith epitomizes the Midwestern ideal of a plain spoken, get-it-done woman. And yet, she’ll make you laugh and cry—something she would find embarrassing, because she’d point out, she’s just a fictional character. Her life is so hard, but it doesn’t break her. She simply keeps putting one foot in front of the other. Even when she does finally do something for herself she has no expectation that anything will come of it or that she deserves any recognition.
The Lager Queen is a wonderfully told family saga, along the lines of Beartown and The Most Fun We Ever Had and like both, it offers something deeper without veering into a morality tale. The relationship between the sisters is not the focus of the novel because there is no relationship. Which is actually, one of my only issues with the novel. It may be that Stradal told as much of Helen as needed telling, but she disappears early on and only reappears in the last quarter of the story. It meant I forgot the other characters in her orbit and their importance. Beyond that hiccup, this a story that strongly evokes a time and place in a way that kept me reading.
Stradal is not moralizing, but The Lager Queen contains plenty of food for thought. Helen grows rich out of making drinkable drek while Edith stays poor making something outstanding. Which life is better? These deeper questions are not baked into the novel, they simply arise from Stradel’s no-nonsense, evocative prose. Like a good beer, he layers The Lager Queen of Minnesota with exceptional ingredients each of which contributes to this frank, unsentimental, and deeply touching story.